Quashed report elicits call for higher education accountability

Nevada legislators and education watchdogs expressed alarm over news higher education officials buried a report amid fear it would reflect poorly on the system. The matter, they said, obstructs what many have long wanted: A higher education system with more accountability.

“The news that NSHE leader­ship is resistant to embracing constructive criticism and change, due largely to political considerations, comes as no surprise to the Nevada Faculty Alliance,” said the group’s president-elect James Strange in an emailed statement.

“We have long been concerned about NSHE’s lax oversight of institutional executive leadership. This lack of oversight, it would seem, is but one facet of a more complex and troubling situation. Academics are held to transparency and peer criticism. Is it too much to ask NSHE be held to the same standards? A leadership culture resistant to the suggestion of change or at least real organizational introspection would point at the need for these very things.”

The Review-Journal reported Sunday that a series of emails between higher education system officials obtained through the state’s public records law showed officials buried a report they had planned to present to legislators, believing it would be used to “bludgeon” the agency if it came to light.

NSHE Chancellor Daniel Klaich sent a memo to the regents Monday at incoming Board of Regents Chairman Rick Trachok’s request, according to Trachok. The memo said the Review-Journal’s article lacked key facts and that the draft report had a number of errors. It also said that the report was done when an interim legislative committee had “virtually finished its work.” The report, he said, was not quashed and was used as intended.

But emails show Klaich had wanted the report done for the final meeting of an interim legislative committee, where there was extensive testimony from former community college presidents and education activists arguing the system be broken up and the community colleges given their own governance structure.

That is the meeting where legislators ultimately decided to direct officials to strengthen the existing system.

Trachok said he did not feel the report had been quashed as many of the suggestions in the report had been discussed at public board meetings over the past year. He said he has asked for relevant documents and would review the facts. Until that’s done, he said he can’t comment on news articles.

“In any event the operative fact from my perspective is that instead of being quashed, the observations and recommendations were in fact discussed by the board,” Trachok wrote in an email.

College of Southern Nevada history professor and League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley President Sondra Cosgrove said that was part of what was so puzzling about the whole affair: The Nevada System of Higher Education ended up adopting many of the report’s suggestions.

What the emails show is that higher education officials wanted the ideas without the tough language that came with them, she said.

“Even if they want to say ‘No, but we implemented all this stuff’ — they took it out of that public purview so the rest of us couldn’t say our two cents,” Cosgrove said. “There shouldn’t be a fear of admitting that you’ve got shortcomings in public. If you cannot admit in public that you’ve got problems how can you ever have an honest discussion to fix things?”

Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, said he didn’t know how anyone could read those emails and not conclude the report had been quashed.

“I think they were arrogant as all get out,” Hansen said. “They come across as ‘These people are idiots, how dare they?’ ”

He said he was disturbed that the emails show the researcher, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, offering to do whatever the system wanted.

“I’m annoyed that they’ll basically say, ‘We’ll tell you whatever you want.’ What kind of independent review is that?” Hansen said. “That obviously was generated from some sort of a threat or some clear indication from the chancellor that he was highly disappointed.”

Hansen said he wanted to act aggressively but wasn’t sure what his options were, adding he imagined the regents would “circle the wagons” and were a “good ol’ boy network.”

He said he found the news frustrating as Klaich and Trachok lobbied aggressively — and successfully — to kill a bill that would have required the Nevada System of Higher Education to undergo an outside audit. Hansen said he was told repeatedly that an outside review of the system would be useless because it wouldn’t do anything Nevada higher education officials weren’t already doing.

Still, he said, considering there is an enormous amount of pressure on higher education right now to be the engine that fuels the state’s economic development, it’s possible the regents won’t do what they usually do when faced with scandal and scrutiny, which is nothing.

Gov. Brian Sandoval made education his primary issue this past legislative session. He encourages the system’s leadership to be open to any opinion meant to advance the system, whether critical, constructive or both, spokeswoman Mari St. Martin said in an email Monday.

Assembly Speaker John Hambrick. R-Las Vegas, said since public money paid for the report the public deserved to see the entire, unvarnished report. He said he hoped faculty would give their thoughts and the regents would look into the matter.

“What are they regents of? They are regents of higher education,” Hambrick said. “That’s a huge responsibility, and if they put things like this aside and do not address it adequately they damage the entire system.”

John Gwaltney, former president of Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, characterized the incident as another symptom of a corrupt system.

“I’m extremely disappointed in what I read because it clearly is an affront to academic standards,” he said. “The nature of the system is going to eat up every single chancellor that comes in.”

Ron Remington, who spent 30 years in the system working as an administrator at all four community colleges and leading both the College of Southern Nevada and Great Basin College, summed up the problem as one resulting from decision-makers who lack a higher education background.

“I think what we have is a lay board of regents being advised by a system office largely operated by people who are not of the academic world about academic issues, and that leads to some difficulties,” Remington said.

The lack of people in the system with experience in higher education was an issue raised in the quashed report.

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Find her on Twitter: @betsbarnes

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